This is the second article in the Where We Came From series.
I didn’t give in easily, trying again and again to find another way to recover the access card. Maybe I could use the magnet through the crack in the adjacent Radiation Lab? No, RESTORE. Perhaps the breastplate of Lazarus might protect me? No, RESTORE. The laser could take out a mutant or two? No, no, no. And so I reluctantly continued the game on the back of a solution I had been handed on a silver platter. The card was mine. And Floyd was dead.
Games are adept at stimulating excitement, panic and euphoria, but are troubled by more complex, intimate emotions such as sadness or regret. The first game I recall plumbing these particular depths is Planetfall (1983), a warm, juicy slice of interactive science fiction from Infocom. Penned by first-time IF author Steve Meretzky, it toys with gamer preconceptions in many ways. However, Planetfall is the subject of many blog posts because of Floyd. Always Floyd.
The story goes that you joined the Stellar Patrol to see the galaxy but end up mired in janitorial duties aboard the starship SPS Feinstein. Without warning, explosions riddle the Feinstein and you high-tail it out of there via an escape pod – just in time to watch the Feinstein explode. The pod dumps you on a nearby planet but you soon discover evidence of a previous civilisation… and find yourself exploring a vast, abandoned complex filled with gadgets and advanced technology.
In the game, you’re completely alone until you happen upon a deactivated robot.
When switched on, the robot introduces himself as Floyd. Floyd’s personality is best described as an excitable young child. He likes to run into a room shouting: “Floyd here now!” When you ask him to go somewhere, he gets embarrassed about his terrible sense of direction and asks instead, “Tell Floyd a story?” And he’d rather play with a rubber ball than get you that vital Fromitz board.
During my game in the eighties, there was one point when I needed a new access card to make more progress but, despite searching under every desk and bed, I couldn’t locate one. I was stuck. Then Floyd, spotting me swipe an access card through one of many slots, piped up: “Those cards are really neat, huh? Floyd has one for himself–see?”
You bastard! I’ve been looking for that everywhere!
While Floyd made me smile in the beginning, as my game drew on he became a constant buzz in my ear, a buzz I eventually screened out. It was like he wasn’t even there any more.
Then we reached the Bio Lab. Inside, another access card which Floyd said we’d need to fix the computer. But with “shadowy, ominous shapes” moving about in there too, Floyd said he should go in and get it as it was too dangerous for me. I thought: he’ll be okay, he’s a robot, made out of tough robot metal.
But when I sent him in, it was horrible – all screams and tearing metal. Floyd made it back out with the card… but he was done for. The text explained that I held him in my arms. Sang him a ballad. Watched him die. Floyd, this bouncy robot child, had been torn apart by monsters. I remember feeling numb.
Many old-timers relate stories of crying when Floyd perished. I was around 14 at the time and didn’t cry for Floyd. In fact, I was convinced I’d made a mistake; Floyd’s death could surely only be the result of player error. But with so much grand wordage invested in his death scene, slowly I came round to consider that… maybe… this was what I was supposed to do.
When I eventually walked away from Floyd’s lifeless remains at the Bio Lab airlock, the game had changed. That buzz in my ear was missing. The world of Planetfall was empty and lonely. Floyd’s death was the first moment in video games which moved me.
Since Planetfall, there have been other tragic moments for players to indulge in. Final Fantasy VII, the death of Aeris. Dreamfall’s Faith. Alley’s tale in Adam Cadre’s Photopia. My own personal weakness is Planescape: Torment, Deionarra’s sensory stone in the Sensate Hall. I watered up over that one, good and proper.
Still, in recent years, the death of Floyd has been derided as a sideshow, a distraction from the cause of truly great game-making.
“…many of the peak emotional moments we remember in games are actually “cheating” — they’re not given to us by the game at all, but by cutscenes. The death of Floyd the Robot in Planetfall is an example of a cheat like this; so’s the death of Aeris. Both are cutscene moments … and not gameplay moments.”
“What I’m getting at is that gamers have come, through a combination of blind personal nostalgia and participation within a cloistered gamer culture, to exaggerate the meaning of what is a highly overrepresented aspect of Planetfall. Floyd is not a compelling character, and barely amounts to a loyal dog that stays by your side throughout.”
Chris Crawford also talked the incident down. In his book Chris Crawford on Interactive Storytelling he wrote, “players were overwhelmed with the moment’s emotional power [as] there was nothing players could do to avert it”. As Emily Short explains, Crawford used this to bolster his argument that interactive fiction is incapable of interactive story-telling as the player has no real control over the narrative.
On a three-hour replay, I was struck how limited Floyd was as a character, and how sparing the descriptions of Planetfall were (memory had coloured it in with richer prose). The game also requires more maintenance than you might expect – hunger and sleep will mar your progress and using any elevator or teleporter requires two full sentences to be typed followed by several turns of waiting. The old battle with the sentence parser is still in evidence and I needed a walkthrough, just once, to reword GET KEY WITH MAGNET as HOLD MAGNET NEAR KEY.
“Perhaps the most amazing thing about the creation of Floyd was how easy it was. The entire code and text for the character, if printed out, would perhaps run to ten pages. What’s amazing is not that I was able to create a computer game character that touched people so deeply, but how infrequently the same thing has been accomplished in the intervening two decades.”
It doesn’t matter whether you can theorise it into nostalgic innocence, Floyd’s death was still a potent moment for those that played through it during the eighties. It defied the prevailing perception that gaming was good for nothing but action and puzzles, an unexpected display of human emotion in an industry more famous for broken joysticks than touching stories.
And to this day, developers are still trying to make their players cry.